Thursday, March 13, 2014

In-Store Lit Group Recap: What Did We Think of "The Flamethrowers?"

This month we read The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (photo credit Lucy Raven) and we went into it well aware of its literary laurels. It was shortlisted for the National Book Award. It was one of The New York Times’ top ten books of 2013, making it effectively one of their top five works of fiction. In fact, along with Tenth of December and The Goldfinch, it well may be one of the three most lauded books of the year.

The story is of an unnamed young artist, nicknamed Reno, who comes to New York to make a name for herself. Back in Nevada (yes, that’s where the name comes from), she wasn’t much of a standout, but she’s got drive, and that’s what gets you noticed in the New York art world. After all, it’s not that any of the art that’s going on makes sense at first glance. One fellow is making metal boxes, another is taking photos of bruised women, and a third is selling the idea of white film.

So Reno’s idea turns out to be “drive” itself. She’s fallen in with the old Sandro Valera, the black-sheep scion of an Italian rubber and motorcycle company. And through Sandro, she’s gotten a brand-new Moto Valera, and off she goes into the Bonneville salt flats, where world speed records are broken. So yes, I’m learning new things all the time here, such as why my father’s 1966 car had a rather un-edgy name of Bonneville.

Reno falls into this promotional tour of Europe for the Valera, and Sandra comes along, only a few things happen along the way that sends the couple of course. Don’t ask how, as I don’t want to give too much away, but Reno winds up in Rome during the Italian worker riots, after she escapes from the Valera estate outside Milan with Roberto, a worker on their grounds. She already saw that workers were on edge with their corporate employers when she saw a slowdown in action Italian racer Didi Bombanato tried to break another record. And then Did himself is kidnapped, but the Sandro’s father won’t capitulate, which only complicates things further after another kidnapping.

In the art world of the 1970s, women are sort of appendages to the men, meant to cook and clean and act as companion for the men. It turns out this is the case for the New York anarchists and the worker movements of Italy. And that is probably where I have to begin my discussion of how the book club reacted to this story.

The truth is that the book club had a little trouble with the misogyny that permeates this story, and while I thought that was an interesting reflection of the time, and how subcultures that we now think of as progressive were pretty sexist back in the 1970s, it can’t help but affect how you read the story, especially because Kushner takes care not to take a 2014 character and place her in the 1970s. She’s doesn’t exactly rebel against the patriarchy, even though this really was the blossoming of women’s liberation. I think if this book had been written by a man, they would have been able to put their finger on what they didn't like, but because it was written by a woman, the whole thing was tougher. I will probably get a lot of grief for that.

I also think we fell prey to that old trap where unpleasant characters make it harder to like a book. Just about everyone in the book is selling something, and part of that pitch involves a change in identity. Who is really exactly who he or she says they are? This book is more head than heart, and that's another thing that probably tripped up some of us. Kushner's story doesn't have exactly a linear structure, but it becomes a little more fractured towards the end, and while we are well used to that, it probably didn't help.

J. thought the book reminded her of The Emperor’s Children, “a New York book for New Yorkers,” she said. Youch. Oops, I also liked The Emperor’s Children. As I went around the room, L. and I were the only ones who liked the book, though D., the other man present, “liked it in bits.” What was going on here? I'll come back to this below.

While the book did get raves from most critics, there were notable dissenters, almost all of them male. When it came to critics, the women were among the loudest champions. And you know you are in the midst of a cultural phenomenon when reviews come out attacking other reviews.(editor's note--I rewrote this sentence, which was formerly incomprehensible.)

In the group itself, there was unanimous voice that Kushner captured the time well. I know that art critics have really enjoyed the book, with the Journal Sentinel’s Mary Louise Schmacher noting that it was one of her favorite novels of 2013. That makes me think she captured the art world pretty accurately as well. And I really liked that she captured that sort of energy that makes someone want to create, bouncing off the energy of the time. But perhaps some of the readers felt less than fulfilled, because we never really know whether Reno makes it or not. It’s sort of the complaint I hear when someone finishes a novel and they can’t figure out if it ended happily or not. But I always argue that leaving the ending open often makes a work stronger.

J. wanted to know whether we thought the film guys were artists too. We had a discussion about whether she was the next generation, or whether they were the next generation. Then we had a discussion about China girls, those models who were used to get the skin tones right when films were shown. Is that what David Bowie was writing about in his song? I reviewed the lyrics and there are vague references to Marlon Brando and television, but honestly, I still have no idea what the subject of the song is.

C. was obsessed with how Reno got back to the United States from Italy, being that she didn’t seem to have any money. I have to say I don’t know. We then had a short discussion of land art, but it didn’t exactly seem like Reno’s project fit into that, because they were photographs of the land, and for traditional land artists, it is the ground themselves that they manipulate to make the art, not observations of things already done.

Oh, and another attendee wanted to know what was the thing that Reno did wrong that she regretted. Did she betray Roberto in Rome? I don't think we had an answer.

In the end, I think that my attendees could have been swayed by enthusiasm. I know lots of folks who loved this book, and I wish an over-the-top champion had shown up to the discussion. I for one found it pretty entertaining, but hey, I'm old enough to have danced at Pyramid and Danceteria, had a friend who used to offer me exploits of his friends, the so-called "gallery girls" and used to spot Andy Warhol once a week in my wanderings, usually at free film screenings.

Whatever the participants thought, they all agreed it was a good discussion. There's a lot of meat in the story, and since it really is a historical novel, there's a lot of extra material you can offer about the time. And I really think that more than any other novel, The Flamethrowers created an old-timey cultural discussion. It's almost like we're all 1970s New Yorkers.

Here's Time Magazine's piece on the book's status as one of the most lauded of 2013.

Dwight Garner in The New York Times says the book "unfolds on a bigger, brighter screen than nearly any recent American novel I can remember."

James Wood is one of the novel's biggest champions. His piece in The New Yorker contests that The Flamethrowers "succeeds because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive." Oh, and this is where I learned that Kushner's novel is inspired by Flaubert's A Sentimental Education.

Boris Kachka profiled Rachel Kushner for New York Magazine, just as her second novel was vying for the National Book Award. Her first novel, Telex from Cuba, also hit that shortlist. Two for two, that's quite a track record.

OK, here's a good one. Laura Miller in Salon accuses the male critics who bashed The Flamethrowers of accusing Rachel Kushner of literary transvestism. Only a man can write the way Kushner dares to write. I really like the phrase "literary transvestism," by the way.

And the rest! Kushner's website wraps it up.

Our next in-store lit group discussion is on Monday, April 7, 7 pm, for Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The book just was awarded the Barnes and Noble Discover Great Writers Award for fiction. Hey, whatever it takes!

Our May meeting is in flux, as I may be running an event with Garrison Keillor at the same time. I'll update the blog with the new time and date. We're reading Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, who is appearing at the store on Thursday, April 24, 7 pm.

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